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A NEW OLD PLAY: Director Qiu Jiongjiong Interviewed by Producer Ding Ningyuan

English translation by John Pao-chuan Wang

Ding Ningyuan: This film is based on your grandfather's life experience, what motivated you to make this film?

Qiu Jiongjiong: My grandfather was a well-known Sichuan opera clown actor. He gained fame during the 1930s and performed until his death in the 1980s. I had a very close relationship with him during the first ten years of my life, and he was a crucial figure in my artistic inspirations which included painting, literature, choreography, music, and acting. It was in him that I first became fascinated with humor, creativity, and formed my initial understanding of comedy: that the strength of humor resides in fascinating individuals.

Before this film, my main focus was in documentary filmmaking and painting. My films, which often centered on the livelihoods of those around me, were like my paintings; they required the same excruciating, detail-oriented attention as that of realistic portraiture as well as the impressionistic strokes of fabulous frenzy and contrastingly melancholic colors. Traits that all tie back to the characteristics of a clown.

In 2017, on the 30th anniversary of my grandfather's passing, my father completed a biographical account of my grandfather and asked me to provide some illustrations for the book. Two months of continuous drawing inspired my desire to tell my grandfather’s story, a clown’s story, through the medium of film. My father's biography provided some of the necessary materials, and through a vast amount of additional background research I conducted, I began to piece together the story of an ordinary man, a man who embodied the spirit of a clown, living through the greatest upheavals of our times. There is nothing new under the sun, as we know. However, these characters are just like you and me, and we each in our own way will continue to repeat this same song of humanity.

DN: What is the meaning of the clown to you, and what do you think it represents?

QJJ: The character of the clown is represented frequently in and is almost ubiquitous with Sichuan opera, especially when compared with other genres of Chinese operas. One could even say that the character of the clown is the spiritual embodiment of Sichuan.

One could even say that the character of the clown is the spiritual embodiment of Sichuan.

In a Sichuan opera play, the clown is not integral to the story being told, but they represent the focal point of the form itself. It is in this character that we see the best representation of the will of an individual on a stage.

For me, the clown's perspective is the author's perspective.

For me, the clown's perspective is the author's perspective. He is an interlocutory spectre who alone has the power to find a chance of spiritual disengagement amidst moments of comedic relief, to sneak out of the boundaries of the stage to re-examine the story as a narrator and storyteller. The dead protagonist often banters and chants about his life, and though he is immersed in his own folly, he still finds moments of transcendence, as if he were separated from his living self. This is a typical gesture associated with the clown. Thus, the examination of one’s life by one’s dead self became the structure

I decided upon. It feels obtuse, but at the same time, it is also sympathetic. The clown jumping in and out between these experiences is a trait especially apparent in Sichuan opera. Maybe the terroir of the Sichuan basin breeds this kind of creative fertility.

In a Sichuan opera play, the clown is also a kind of “magnified” human being. In representations of their humanity, we see contrasting traces of grace/vulgarity, naiveté/cruelty, solemnity/buffoonery, kindness/tenderness, confusion/self-awareness, and fragility/tenacity. Just like the painted face of the clown, it's hard to tell on the outset if this is a joyful or sad character. In this story, all these humble individuals drift with the tidal waves of the changing era. They are powerless to manage their fates against echoing reverberations of desperate situations, but suddenly they find the audacity to guffaw and make a face, however useless, against the tide. This is the glory and defiance of a people who are as minute as a speck of dust. These are people, who after falling into a cesspool, still manage to gracefully separate themselves from the pieces of fecal matter drowning them. The protagonist, as well as everyone else revolving around him in the film, also have this distinct trait. The dust specks dance in the limelight, which ultimately forms an ensemble play of clowns.

DN: The film tells the story of a Sichuan opera troupe, but you chose to focus on the daily lives of the actors rather than their opera performances. How did you integrate Sichuan opera into this film?

I wanted to present a distinctly Sichuan-flavoured saga; a comical epic of the people of Sichuan.

QJJ: I wanted to present a distinctly Sichuan-flavoured saga; a comical epic of the people of Sichuan. My main concern lay with the desire to incorporate local elements without making a conceptualized spectacle that reduced these elements to stereotypes. For example, the mask-changing and fire-breathing techniques in Sichuan opera has already mutated into symbolic tourist attractions. I wanted to tell the story in a way that reconstructs the traditional grammar of the Sichuan operatic language which would simulate and retain its flavor and melodies without sacrificing the ability to communicate through a common language, just like the works of Chaucer, Rabelais, Boccaccio, and medieval tramp novels.

Sichuan opera is a timeless heritage with unrestrained and boundless beauty. It is full of mundane expressions that connects us with the deepest and most personal of our humanity. Maybe it's because the land of Sichuan is just so lively, and filled with the hustle and bustle of life, that people residing there are able to cope with their problems as though it’s nothing but daily routine. For example, one often associates Sichuan opera with cuisine. The words "Jiao Ma" (literally "peppery and chili flavor") in the film’s title "Jiao Ma Tang Hui" (the original Chinese title of A NEW OLD PLAY), is literally translated as "the gathering and celebration of peppery and chili flavors.” “Jiao Ma” is a classic Sichuan taste.

In this film, the connection between those onstage and offstage, as well as inside and outside the Sichuan opera being put together in the story, is blurred. What happens onstage is integrated into the narrative, and the expressions onstage are blended into the characters’ everyday lives. This is because Sichuan opera took root in my body and soul through the mundanity of everyday life. Just like when generations of Sichuan opera goers, who spent much of their time in the theater weeping, sighing, falling asleep, etc., their lives are in a way inter-textualized with the performance on stage, creating an adventitious symmetry of life itself; were they just watching a performance, or are they themselves a part of, or even integrated into the performance? With time, the stage actors pass away. The audience passes away. The symmetric organism formed between the performers and the audience disintegrates, and thus Sichuan opera also “passes away". Through the film, I tried to channel the voice of a Sichuan opera clown to conjure the lost bits of these interesting daily lives.

In terms of the form of the film, I tried to express as much as I could through the familiar elements of Chinese operas. For example, on a Chinese opera stage, a table and two chairs can represent a hill and a bridge. A whip can represent a valiant steed. A pair of flags can represent a sedan chair or chariot. Four actors are equivalent to an army consisting of hundreds of thousands of warriors. Chinese operas often find impressionistic, even free-handed ways to paint a world of wonders within a very confined space. I am fascinated with this creativity.

In addition, the music composed for this film was also created from elements taken from traditional Sichuan opera.

DN: Most of the film’s dialogue (as well as the written screenplay) feature the Sichuan dialect. Why did you choose to use a specific dialect?

QJJ: I chose to film in the Sichuan dialect because it is my native language. The Sichuan dialect is characterized by its vividness and humor. In 1962, a film titled “Conscription" was filmed in the Sichuan dialect. It’s peculiar in the sense that even though the film was clearly preachy, but the usage of the Sichuan dialect gave it a homely, authentic, and vibrant tone. This film has infludenced generations of Sichuan audiences. Since the early 90s, the Sichuan province has produced many television dramas using our own dialect. In a way, this means that the dialect choice does indeed enjoy an audience base. Unfortunately, however, there has not been another film of note made in the Sichuan dialect since “Conscription”. I suppose this is probably one of the reasons why I chose to use the Sichuan dialect in my film as well. Towards the end of the Ming dynasty, the peasant rebel Zhang Xianzhong committed mass genocide against the Sichuan people. Due to this event, most of the subsequent generations of the Sichuan people are actually migrants from other provinces. Hundreds of years of migration has resulted in the forming of a Sichuan dialect that is complex with tones of vivacity, vulgarity, voracity, and perhaps something indistinguishable between ecstasy and melancholy. It’s a dialect of strong nostalgia that is at once rich and three-dimensional while also wise and transcendent. This is still evident today in my hometown where the mighty and insignificant alike all congregate in the fields of forgotten diaspora, speaking this very same dialect.

Hundreds of years of migration has resulted in the forming of a Sichuan dialect that is complex with tones of vivacity, vulgarity, voracity, and perhaps something indistinguishable between ecstasy and melancholy.

DN: The film’s depth of field and horizontally-shifting camera work presented a strong, painterly vision. Can you tell us how you came to this stylistic choice?

QJJ: Painting was the very first artistic endeavor that I took on. Naturally, painting was something that would find a place in my films.

The cinematography in this film, or more specifically, the stylistic choice to emphasize the boundaries of the seen frame, is directly inspired by paintings. For example, the shallow depth of field resembles the narrative style of religious altar triptychs or frescoes of Giotto di Bondone. In terms of camera movement, we used many horizontal shifts to present the story like a slowly unveiling scroll of Chinese painting.

DN: This film features a very unusual production design style, can you tell us more about how this style came about?

QJJ: We built a simple white shed on the parking lot of a friend’s factory, and borrowed another manufacturing space within the same factory. These two places, when combined, were roughly about one thousand square meters altogether. That’s all we had to shoot and prepare the sets with.The production design took us about half a year, where we basically hand-made all the elements that are in the film. Pieces from the walls, the staircases, and backdrops all the way down to the most minute items in the film were all hand-crafted and painted by the production design team and myself. During the shooting process, we would disassemble and reassemble the necessary pieces as the scenes required, and planned accordingly. Every time we finished shooting a scene, we might need to disassemble the pieces and reassemble at a later time. The entire shoot took around three months.

The production design took us about half a year, where we basically hand-made all the elements that are in the film.

Many materials were hand-me-downs and just random things laying around that we were able to refurbish through techniques that were passed down from early screen and stage experiences. In a way, I wanted the film to visually convey a sense between reality and fiction. In my previous film, MR. ZHANG BELIEVES, I also used the very same method of sound stage shooting and handcrafting production designs. This film is a continuation of that tradition. I think sound stage shooting and handcrafted production designing is a tradition that is an extension of creative invention. I hope that through connecting myself to said tradition, and translating my own understanding of it in my own film, I can have a spiritual discourse with the history of cinema as a whole.

DN: Many of the actors in your film are also your crew members. What was the thinking behind this decision?

QJJ: The people involved in this film are mainly my family. Family, in the broader sense, includes not only my relatives, but also people from my hometown, many of whom have close ties to my relatives. Many of my friends, who I also consider to be my family, not only play roles in the film, but are also involved in the production. In a way, this was a fulfillment of my wish to tell a story locally. The production of this film was a like a party that gathered my family, friends, and co-workers together for a summer bash. A party that connected like-minded people together.

In the film, only the teachers in the troupe are professional Sichuan opera actors. Everyone else are essentially nonprofessional actors. Many of the leads in the film have very deep roots in Chinese independent cinema, whether as directors or producers. For example, the actor who plays Qiu Fu and actress who plays Tong Huafeng (Qiu Fu’s wife), were proliferate curator and coordinator of independent film festivals. The actor who plays Tuo-er is the acclaimed independent documentary director Gu Tao.

From the year 2000 to 2012, Chinese independent films was going through a period of rapid growth. It was during this time that I made many lasting friendships. This film gave us a chance to come back together.

From the year 2000 to 2012, Chinese independent films was going through a period of rapid growth. It was during this time that I made many lasting friendships. This film gave us a chance to come back together.

Many of my friends in the art circle also joined in the festivities. Artists like Lv Xin, Lu Wei, and Wen Ke were involved since my beginnings in documentary filmmaking. In this film, not only were they leading the production design team, but they also played roles.

My father played Pocky. My nephew played Little Qiu, and my niece played Ah Gui. My cousin composed the music for the film, while my uncle is my artistic advisor. Also of note is that most of our crew all played roles in the film. Just like actors in the Sichuan opera troupes of yore, the crew members would often wear heavy make-up and move set pieces and backdrops in their costumes.

● 这个电影是取材自你的祖父,是什么促使你做这部电影?




● 小丑与你而言有何特别之处,你觉得小丑代表了什么?




● 虽然故事中讲述的是一个川剧戏班,但你并没有特别呈现川剧的表演,更多去呈现这些戏班演员的生活,你是如何将川剧融入到这部电影里的?






● 无论是你的剧本写作,还是电影中的对白都是用四川方言完成的,你为什么选择方言?


● 这部影片的浅景深以及横移镜头使得影片呈现出强烈的绘画性,可否讲一讲你为什么采取了这样的表达方式?



● 这部影片的美术风格不同寻常,请介绍一下你们的制作方式?




● 这部影片的演员往往也同时是你剧组的工作人员,这是一个怎样的团队?



这部影片除了剧团的老师是专业的川剧演员之外,其余基本都是非职业演员。这部影片的几位主演和中国独立电影都有很深的渊源,或是独立电影的推手,或是导演。比如邱福和他妻子桐花凤的扮演者,就是中国曾经非常活跃的云之南影像展的策展人和组织者。驼儿的扮演者就是中国著名的独立纪录片导演顾桃,鸡脚神的扮演者也是中国一个民间放映组织的创办者。中国独立电影从2000年初到2012年是一个蓬勃发展的时期,我们在这期间结下了深厚的友谊。因为这部影片,我们又聚在了一起。还有我艺术圈的朋友,比如艺术家吕欣、陆苇、温科,他们从我最早的纪录片创作开始就一直参与其中,在这部影片里他们不仅带领了美术部门的工作,也出演了一些角色。参与本片的还有我的亲人,比方我的父亲饰演了pocky,我的侄子饰演了little Qiu,我的侄女饰演了Ah Gui,作曲是我的表妹,我的叔叔既饰演了其中一个角色,同时也是我的艺术顾问之一。值得一提的是,我们的工作人员基本都参与了演出,就像以前川剧班子里的演员,他们身着戏装,画着浓妆,在换场的空隙搬运景片。


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